Anyone who’s followed the career of director John Landis could tell you: the man knows his movies. You can’t make something like “An American Werewolf in London” or Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” if you don’t understand horror films inside and out. Landis’ movies, from “Kentucky Fried Movie” to “The Blues Brothers” to “Three Amigos” are awash in cinemania. Cinephiles love Landis because Landis clearly loves cinephilia.
For proof, you only need to check out Landis’ beautiful new book, “Monsters in the Movies,” an illustrated history of cinematic creatures. With witty commentary and insightful observations, Landis outlines the origins and developments of all the famous monsters of filmland, from Dracula to Frankenstein to The Mummy and many more.
“Monsters in the Movies” includes over a thousand pictures from the Kobal Collection, the largest collection of motion picture stills in the world. Kobal approached Landis about doing a picture book on whatever topic he wanted; he decided to write about monsters. “It’s a very inclusive subject,” Landis told me, “because it’s fantasy, science fiction, horror, Bergman, Fellini; anything with a monster.”
During our conversation, Landis and I talked about plenty of monsters, and plenty of other topics covering his lengthy and impressive filmography. I got his picks for the best recent monster movie (hint: it’s Swedish) and the best movie monster of all time (hint: it’s Krellian). We also discussed DVD director’s cuts, the possibility of a “Blues Brothers” television show, and why zombies are the monsters of the 21st century.
How long did it take you to write the book?
The research took me two and a half months; I was surprised by how long it took. It was a lot of work. Then when I realized I had to write captions for those 1400 pictures, I was like “Holy shit!”
My favorite caption was the one for “Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype.” Just two words: “Don’t ask.” Naturally, I had to look it up. It’s on Netflix Instant.
With Oliver Reed. Oh, it’s terrible.
It’s actually a great book to read that way. Have Netflix open as you look through it and then fill up your queue. I found twenty movies in there I either hadn’t seen before or haven’t seen in years that were on Netflix Instant.
What I would like is if it introduced people to movies they didn’t know. But it’s really very specific. It’s not about the quality of the film, it’s about monsters in the movies.
Movies are unique. They’re not like painting or theater or sculpture or literature. If you pick up a book and it’s bad, you put it down. Or if you see a bad painting, you don’t spend time studying it. But we can sit through bad movies and often do.
Some of us enjoy them.
Yeah! It’s totally different. Bad theater? I’m outta there, I can’t stand it. So bad movies are kind of a unique phenomenon.
There are also some great interviews in the book with monster-inclined filmmakers like Guillermo del Toro, Joe Dante, and Sam Raimi.
They’re all very distinguished guys and people I’ve known for many years. So they are friends of mine. I call them conversations as opposed to interviews because I was able to challenge them. I’m thrilled with my interview with Christopher Lee because he notoriously doesn’t really want to talk about Dracula, but with me it was different.
You ask most of those guys the same first question: “What is a monster?”
And they all had different answers.
Did you have a favorite response?
My favorite poetic response is Guillermo’s. He rejected the idea of horror films as roller coasters, which is what almost everyone says they are. It’s not a bad analogy because it talks about experiencing danger without being in danger. But Guillermo said that doesn’t work because horror movies are not physical. Which is actually wrong; they are physical. But he said that wonderful thing where he described horror movies as “roller coasters for the soul.” I thought that was great.
I was fascinated by their answers. Ray Harryhausen refused out of hand that his creatures were “monsters.” Which I kind of loved. Everyone had different ideas. I loved David Cronenberg’s analogy of zombies representing aging and decrepitude.
That was interesting. I’d never heard that one before.
Joe Dante says monsters are metaphors. And he recommends a parlor game: name the monster, name the metaphor. He uses Godzilla as his example. But it’s true: zombies, I think, are the monsters of the 21st century. And what zombies have evolved into, far from their Caribbean roots, are agents of the apocalypse. Clearly this renaissance of zombie pictures — I mean, Brad Pitt is making a $200 million zombie picture right now — represents the collapse of social order, chaos, anarchy. Which is what is happening all over the world and what we’re really scared of. It’s why Mayor Bloomberg broke up those protestors. People are really scared of that.
I was thinking about the roller coaster analogy while I was reading the book. You’ve organized each chapter by monster, so you look at twenty Draculas and then fifteen Frankensteins. That repetition is interesting, and it does kind of reflect on the roller coaster idea: monsters are a kind of safe and almost reassuring horror.
It depends. There are some movies that are truly scary. Whenever you do something about people, whether it’s Hannibal Lecter or Norman Bates, there’s a reality already there because people like that exist: Son of Sam, Charles Manson. So those films have a leg up on scaring you and can be the most profoundly scary. Ultimately, ghosts and goblins, vampires and werewolves, mummies, they don’t exist. To really terrify you with that stuff is harder. I love the image that Christopher Lee describes when I asked him what scared him as a child and he talks about seeing the Karloff “Frankenstein” and thinking that he’d be laying in his bed and Boris would be standing there. That’s really scary.
As someone who watched “Thriller” at a very young age, I could relate.
Oh, yeah, “Thriller”‘s not for little kids, it’s too scary.
I learned that the hard way.
[laughs] Your mother let you see it?
Yeah. And then for years when it would show up in “Greatest Music Videos of All Time” countdowns I would make up some bullshit excuse and leave the room so I didn’t have to relive the trauma.
When my son Max, who’s now having great success — his first produced screenplay called “Chronicle” comes out in February — was little, I was fascinated by two things. One, when something was scary, he would cover his ears. And two, he knew when something was too scary. He wouldn’t expose himself to it, which I thought was really great.
I had the opposite problem. I knew something would scare me, but I’d watch it anyway and have nightmares. You talk about that in the book, how children are drawn in a weird way to the things that terrify them.
Absolutely. And not so weird, either, because you’re learning to deal with your fears.
Are there things we can say about people based on the monsters they like? For example, are there personality traits that all Frankenstein fans have in common?
[pause] That’s interesting. I’d have to think about it more. There certainly are some people who are crazy about vampires, for example. Girls, usually, adolescent girls. And now you have the whole “Twilight” phenomenon. These movies are not about vampires, they’re about abstinence. They’re Mormon vampires.
What was the last new monster movie that really impressed you?
That Swedish movie, “Let the Right One In.” I just loved it. I still think the best monster ever, just conceptually, is from “Forbidden Planet” — the “Monster From the Id.” That’s so clever, and the whole concept of this civilization advancing to the point where their thoughts are reality, and then not considering their subconscious, it’s so brilliant.
Several times in the book when the question of the best horror film of all time comes up, you cite “The Exorcist.”
That’s my best example of what a fantasy film is supposed to do. What’s brilliant about “The Exorcist” is William Friedkin made that movie — I mean the original theatrical release —
Not “The Version You’ve Never Seen?”
Yeah, there was a reason for that.
Anyway, “The Exorcist” is the classic example of what’s called suspension of disbelief. I use myself as the example. I’m an atheist. I do not believe in the devil; in fact, I’m suspect of people who do. I just don’t believe any of the tropes of that movie. None of them. They’re ridiculous. But during the course of the film, Friedkin created an atmosphere that’s so brilliantly set up that you buy into all of it. To the point where when Max von Sydow’s Father Karras shows up at the house, you’re like “Oh thank Christ!” It’s just a great film in terms of making the unreal real.
All right, so if it’s “The Exoricst” is number one, what’s number two?
I’ve seen a lot of really scary movies. I was fortunate or unfortunate, depending on your point of view, to go to all the grindhouses on Hollywood Boulevard in the 1970s with Joe Dante and some other people. It was very much like how 42nd Street used to be. We’d go see triple features for a dollar. Every so often there’d be one that would make you go “Wait a minute, this is good!” I saw “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” that way, knowing nothing about it. It just terrified me. Having watched it a number of times since, I still think it’s brilliant. It’s relentless. And there’s very little onscreen violence. It’s considered the most gruesome movie, but it’s not. Really, I think the most gruesome movie I’ve ever seen is “The Passion of the Christ.” That was seriously outrageous.
The first time I saw “Night of the Living Dead” I saw it in a triple feature, also knowing nothing. And it started and I went, “This looks cheap and shitty.” The movie kept going and I realized while watching it that the lead of the movie slowly became the black guy, which was so extraordinary at the time. It just blew me away; the kid eating her father and then coming after the mother with the trowel. It totally freaked me out.
Speaking of alternate director’s cuts like that version of “The Exorcist,” you don’t seem to be a big fan of that. You’ve rarely released alternate cuts of your movies, although I do own a longer version of “The Blues Brothers.”
It’s not that I’m not a big fan. Ridley Scott’s version of “Blade Runner” is better than the theatrical version. He did improve it. With “The Blues Brothers,” that’s a preview print of a little longer version. “Three Amigos” just came out on Blu-ray and I was very pleased because I was given the opportunity to restore it. It’s gorgeous. The movie was intended to look like an old Technicolor Hollywood western and the Blu-ray is really the way it’s supposed to look. I’m so happy with it. On the Blu-ray as an extra are 20 minutes of deleted scenes. And you look at them and you go “Well, we were probably right to take them out.” You never know.
When I was at Fantastic Fest a few months ago, they had an anniversary screening for “An American Werewolf in London.”
Oh, with that beautiful poster.
Exactly. And Rick Baker was there, and I got to talk to him about the movie. He said all he sees when he looks at the movie now are the mistakes he made. Can you look at your movies and enjoy them or are you the same way?
Some of them. But, yeah, you just see all the mistakes. And it’s also hard to separate the actual movie from the experience of making the movie.
What about “American Werewolf?” Rick was complaining about the transformation. I think it still holds up amazingly well.
I think it holds up. I think I showed the finished wolf too much. Rick doesn’t, but I do. I was so enamored with his work that I let you see it too much in the movie.
What are you working on now?
I have a film that’s supposed to happen next year in Paris, a little monster movie. I wrote a treatment and now I’ve got to write the script but I haven’t really finished it and I should.
Are you involved with that “Blues Brothers” television show that was announced last summer?
It’s not happening?
It was announced they were trying to sell it, but I don’t think that they have. I know nothing about it. That’s by Judy, John [Belushi]’s widow.
You wouldn’t be interested in directing some of it?
Not a TV series.
Do you want to write more books? I would love to read your memoir. Is that something you’d be interested in?
They ask me to do that all the time. But I don’t know. You can’t really be truthful when you write a memoir. If you were truthful you’d never work again and you’d lose a lot of friends. I don’t see the benefit of it.